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Yes, men are better described with craggy features and women with gracefull looks and gaits. And men are willingly turned towards sanctity, when women take care of kids, meals and winds. Yes children love pets and Indian railroad tracks are collective laundries. Introducing an album of photos by a renown artist who mocks his own professionnal inclinations by delivering colorful clichés is no trifle. To confront Kolkata and Benaras which are on opposite postures in the abundant mythology of Indian cities doesn’t make things easier. Yet, there is more to be seen in this book.

First of all, both cities are champions in their own category. Of all Indian holy contemporary cities, Benaras is, perhaps with Haridwar and Madurai, on the top five list. Likewise, Kolkata, having been capital of the East Indian Company before that of Independant India, turns into being recognised a capital of capitals. Hard to forget that this city was once the second bigest city of the broadest empire ever. I would like to add another convergence that is scarcely to be seen in this book. Both cities, in spite or because of their monumental munificence, can pride themselves into having till now, developped, out of minute details, the original creativity of a discreet urban elegance. Benaras ghats and the Durga Puja in Calcutta diffuse into palaces, temples, bazars, streets and ordinary buildings a sense of decayed beauty that baffles the uninformed traveler. Being out of competition by disruptions due to mass tourism and a devouring centralised authority, opens all doors to imagination and inventivity. If one of those cities were to disapear one day, we would have to build it anew.

Both cities can, by the way, reverse roles without cheating nor loosing ground. In Bankim’s Anandamath, the battle of legitimacies opposing Indian religious powers (warior monks against brahmanic institutions), yields, after the rather infamous battle of Placey, to the mounting power enbodied by the never named city of Kolkata. Likewise, the display of political might on Benaras’ghats is a gentle reminder that, in spite of the burning pyres on both ends of the city, kings and priests, Brahmins and dalits, beggars, poets and corporate slaves, have to maintain together a frail balance in our turbulent world. All in all, the two cities are connivent in their message to a shared history. This is where a chapter, abruptly named India, makes full sense. This is Bharat. Here is India ! The photographer doesn’t shade his sense of fun, to the contrary. Confronting the two cities, he unravels a happy paradox.

What the photographer didn’t think of hiding either is what turned mad the greedy invaders of past centuries on their first steps here in India. It is, above the qualities of those brilliant cities, the sense of an invading beauty of all moments, most people and so many places. Smiling children friendly conversations, precise gesture of a sculptor brushing a last touch on Ma Durga’s nose, the long swinging line of tribal dancers claping hands, dog and man enjoying together the melody of a bambu flute, the silent tea stall morning moment, boats waiting, side by side, the moment to drift away, steady crowd in a gridlocked narrow street, a proud forehead dedicated to Sita and Ram, Ganga everywhere.

Calcutta is no more the city of joy than Benaras is the city of a frontier between life and death. Both are cities of a dreadfull energy that can be seen on women’s mischeavous glances, children’s not so innocent games and old people’s eagerness to enjoy this world till the last minute. In this fashion, both Kolkata and Banaras, having nothing to prove, are places of a freedom of attitudes and practices that are not so much to be met throughout India now. This is where, beyond apparent clichés, those photos deliver, through this opposing game, a proud ignorance of elementary conventions. Both cities resist what is expected from them in political speeches and heritage projects. Having no agenda, they walk their own path.

The title of this book says beyond. But no precision is given about beyond what ? And who should be or walk beyond ? What means traveling beyond ? Should I dare suggest that beyond those two cities, a fictitious eternal Bharat is expected someway ? I don’t exactly know what would be an eternal Bharat, though I suspect it approaches a country freed from academic, political or religious grip. An India who would not so much debate its part on the global frenzy for satelites, warplanes and bullettrains, but rather negociate its role in arts, dreams, poetry and the desire (Kama) for an open present. This is what appears to me through faces where innocence and boldness converge, adressing the tough issues that kids will have to address in their heads before inventing the next generation. That is, through the photos that move me best, my interpretation of beyond. A surprise that photography never eludes is that a beyond is always to be discovered close by, even right here. The less is said, the more is unveiled. What this book offers is a beyond open to broad smiles and mysterious gravity, hope and despair, changes between a weary eternity and dreams of cellphones, action and meditation. There are so many beyonds to be dreamed of in this part of the world.

I would like to introduce another two privileges of photography as an art. First, the magic of this eighth art is that, in spite of being motionless, a photo is definitively expected to evoke movement. Brisk, slow, broad or violent, a movement. It is the case on most of Debashis Mukherjee’s portraits here, where emotional or body movements are being caught on almost all close-up shots. When rather on scenes than on portraits, Mukherjee offers the reader compositions kin to some European 17th century famous paintings. In other words he cleverly crosses the risky borders between painting, cinema and photography.

The other privilege of this artist’s photos is, when I close the book and shut my eyes, the bright red color that invades my mind. Red. To me (is it only to me ?), red is the color of a daring elegance then also of tragedy. This is what I will take away from this artist’s look upon Calcutta, Benaras and beyond, a bold touch of elegance and tragedy that tells so much about India as she moves, eyes wide open, into the new millenium.

Marc Hatzfeld, March 20, 2024

*Foreword to Calcutta, Benaras and beyond, Photographs by Debashis Mukherjee, Publisher Sampark, Kolkata 2024


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Marc Hatzfeld, Sociologue des marges sociales
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